Documentary Explores Community Erased By Man-made Lake

The short will be screened at the inaugural Fort Smith International Film Festival.

Sardis Cemetery sign

Gravestones dot the landscape of a small island in Sardis Lake in eastern Oklahoma. The cemetery is what remains of the community of Sardis, which was flooded to create the lake. The stories of people connected to the lost community are shared in the documentary Sardis, which will be screened this weekend at the Fort Smith International Film Festival. 

Hosted by the River Valley Film Society, the festival will celebrate the artistic expression and experiences of Native Americans and People of Color through film, panel discussions and more, according to event organizers.

Directed and produced by Colleen Thurston, Sardis is part of a feature-length documentary called Drowned Land. The in-process project deals with the history and cycle of displacement due to resource exploitation within the Choctaw Nation. The story of Sardis serves as a case study. 

“Sardis within the larger story provides the kind of cautionary tale of what can happen — along with the Trail of Tears — what can happen to these communities if what is valued is ‘resources’ for exploitation,” she says.

Thurston is a member of Choctaw Nation which was embroiled in an almost decade-long lawsuit over water rights to Sardis Lake. She first heard of the community of Sardis as Choctaw Nation undertook a media and outreach campaign to educate tribal citizens about the proceedings. 

Sardis Lake covers 14,360 acres and has 117 miles of shoreline. It’s one of more than 200 man-made lakes in Oklahoma which has more than any other state. Some started out as federal Works Project Administration projects. Lakes were created for flood control or to generate hydroelectric power and the promise of tourism was a way to sell the projects to the community, Thurston says.

“There were very legitimate reasons to build these lakes, did we need all of them, I’m not sure that I could argue that,” she says.

Today, Sardis Lake surrounds Sardis Cemetery where people gather on the first Sunday in June to remember loved ones by decorating graves and hosting a potluck dinner. When the lake was constructed, about 15 feet of soil was piled on top of the graves and gravestones were reinstalled on the the higher ground, though some say they were not all placed in the correct location. 

“It’s really upsetting, it is, and I think that that’s kind of the human element — that regardless of what you think about the lake, nobody wants to think that their loved ones have been disturbed,” Thurston says. 

An important takeaway from the film, she says, is considering the land that you’re on and the memories it holds. Additionally, think about where your water is coming from and if it’s affecting other people.

“Water is life, but we should know where it comes from,” she says. “We should respect our water sources.”

The inaugural Fort Smith International Film Festival is Aug. 13-14. Sardis will be screened Saturday afternoon. Tickets and more information are available at

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.